To Contract or Not to Contract

To Contract


Running your own business is HARD. Things you never really thought of when deciding you wanted to be your own boss keep popping up like an obnoxious fifth grader grinning in serial killer fashion and shouting, “Hi! Hey! Hi! Look at me, lady, look at me!” inches from your nose so you can smell sugar-coated cavities while you feel your nerves shattering into tiny pieces. (Wow, that escalated quickly.)  One of those little buggers is contracts.

The first contract I ever signed was for the internship I got right out of college editing a fiction manuscript. I read it, signed it, no big deal. I didn’t have to write it. When I got my first paying gig, ghostwriting a fantasy fiction book, the client provided the contract. It was a rudimentary contract that should have had more stipulations on her end, but neither of us really knew how ghostwriting worked. (You can read how that turned out here.) For my most recent ghostwriting project, I’m working with a substance abuse recovery expert to write a nonfiction book for parents with children suffering from drug addiction. When I landed that deal, I had a website, an impressive portfolio, a killer pitch template that had grabbed his attention, and a hell of a lot more confidence. The client saw me as the expert, and thus he left the whole contract process to me, just requesting that I include a standard non-disclosure agreement (NDA). At first I was excited that I would get to craft every detail of the contract just to my liking right off the bat. Then I went, “Oh shit, I have to write a contract!” When I first launched PurpleInkPen, I told myself I needed to get some contract templates written up … but I put it off, and it of course came back to bite me in the bum. I knew there were sites that provided legal templates, so I got to googling and found plenty. I quickly downloaded a ghostwriting contract and an NDA. Still, I scrambled all that day to balance the work I already had and go through, read the contract template I chose, customize it to my desired specs, and send it to my brand new client in a timely fashion. My brain hurt very badly at the end of the day. Don’t do that to yourself.


The sites I ended up using were for the contract and for the NDA because they were both free. SEQ Legal is actually based in the UK somewhere, and I had to go through and change a lot of spelling and change pounds into dollars, but hey, it was free. There are other more popular sites that will do most of the heavy lifting for you like Rocket Lawyer. I started using that site initially. It asks you to fill in some basic info and it implements the answers throughout the whole contract, but you have to pay before you can see the finished product. I wanted to read the whole contract before I paid, so I did the extra legwork and just got a free template. There is another site called that boasts free templates. I haven’t checked them out personally, but they are high on the Google results page.

Contracts are a scary thing if you’re not a lawyer and you don’t have the bucks to keep one on retainer. You’ll worry you’re going to accidentally screw yourself over, you’ll rip some hair out trying to wade through legal jargon, and you’ll ultimately end up asking yourself, “Do I even need this stupid thing?” Well, in my humble opinion, the answer to that question depends on the nature of the work involved.

Let me explain through what I know best. I always, always, always want a contract when I do ghostwriting work, but I haven’t had a contract involved in an editing job since that very first internship. Let’s break down why.

Why You Might Need a Contract:

The biggest reason I use a contract with ghostwriting is because the nature of the work is highly confidential. In ghostwriting, your client’s name goes on what you write for them, not your name. If a contract isn’t in place to clearly state who has rights to what, what the ghostwriter is and isn’t allowed to do with the material, etc., you can find yourself in a legal nightmare of he-said-she-said. This doesn’t just apply to writing books. I ghostwrite product reviews, too, and you bet your frilly bonnet I have a contract with that client also. Normally with ghostwriting, the client insists on a contract, but even if a client didn’t want one, I would insist on it. Now that I’m more educated on the subject, I make sure I don’t get screwed with a raw deal from a client who doesn’t take my professional needs into consideration, usually because they simply don’t know/understand my needs. For instance, I now always make sure there is a clause in the contract that states when and how I can use samples from the work for my own professional betterment. I do a lot of ghostwriting, and if I couldn’t use any samples from that work, my portfolio would be sparce. Some clients don’t care if I use their name along with the samples and post them freely on my portfolio (but nowhere else). Others want me to keep the project description discrete and make sure anyone requesting a sample from their work signs an NDA. I completely understand that, and I respect that agreement. But I make sure that agreement is stated in the contract so a client couldn’t sue me for sharing a sample later on.

If your niche deals with sensitive information and/or could get you wrapped up in legal ramifications, you NEED a contract. Suck it up and write one up.

Another reason you might get a contract involved is if you’re dealing with a large business or if you’re getting your own work published through someone else, like a magazine. A large business will probably want you to sign a W9 and a contract so they can write off your services on their taxes. They will always provide that contract, so no big deal on your end; just make sure you actually read it. If you’re submitting articles to a magazine and getting paid for it, you want a contract. The magazine will provide one, but make sure you negotiate it to get the best deal. For instance, you want to make sure that once they accept your article, they have to pay you right then. Some contracts will state that you don’t get paid until the article is actually published. Sometimes stories get pulled or postponed for months, so you want to be paid regardless of whether it actually shows up in print. You already did your part of the work, so you should be paid for it regardless.

Why You May Not Need a Contract:

I don’t bother with formal contracts when I edit manuscripts or website content because there really aren’t serious legal ramifications involved with the work (It’s undoubtedly the client’s work and always will be; I’m just polishing it). Also, the work itself is a little more casual. Being a book editor is a very special thing. You become a confidante with whom your client is sharing their paper and ink baby; sometimes, I’m the first person to ever read it. There is a mutual trust involved. Plus, I make sure I get paid in installments (an initial down payment, a payment at the halfway point, and a final payment when the work is delivered) so that if a client ever doesn’t pay up (hasn’t happened yet, thankfully), I didn’t edit a whole manuscript and end up with nothing to show for it.

Still, someday a client might refuse to make a payment. I might unknowingly work with a cuckoo bird who decides to sue me for damages because somebody pointed out a solitary comma error in her manuscript after she’d published it. That’s why I utilize informal contracts through email. After I discuss the details of the work with the client, I send an email that lays out everything: the client’s name, what I’ll be working on, what kind of edit I’m doing, the deadline, and the price. Then, I ask the client to respond letting me know that everything looks good and that they agree. They usually attach the manuscript in their response, too. I save those emails, and they serve as an agreement. If someone were to contest my work, I could whip out that agreement and show that I did everything according to what we had both agreed on. If a client didn’t pay, I would send an email threatening legal ramifications (after a few much nicer emails reminding the client that I need to be paid for my services) and let the client know that I’ve kept our emails as a written agreement that they would pay me and how much.

With editing clients, I also ask for a larger down payment than I do with ghostwriting clients. This lets me know that the client is serious about getting this done and ensures that I get paid a nice sum even if the client backs out halfway through.

Final Thoughts

I would suggest you always have some form of agreement laid down, but just feel out your clients and take your niche into consideration when deciding if you need a formal contract or not. If a contract for everything makes you feel safer, by all means, go for it. It can’t hurt. However, if contracts make your eye twitch, take a few calming breaths and decide if something a little more informal can work just as well for you.

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